Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Process for developing MAUSD consolidation plan not transparent

Since May I have volunteered as a community member to the MAUSD Facilities Feasibility Study Sub-Committee. The subcommittee was comprised of administrative staff, including the superintendent, school board members and members of the community. The purpose of the subcommittee was to help think financially and creatively about ways to preserve our local schools, if possible, and re-configure them consistent with our Core Values if that was not possible. (I definitely did not join to be embroiled in the controversy we now are facing!)
The board prescribed the subcommittee’s mission to respond to 18 Essential Questions centered on finances because MAUSD is in a financial predicament.
The very first Essential Question asked: “What is the cost of maintaining our current facilities? For how long can we financially afford to keep them all open and appropriately staffed?” Community Engagement meetings in the fall 2019 showed that participants understood that keeping open all elementary schools would necessitate changes. I expected that the committee would start its work by evaluating every conceivable change, inside-the-box and outside-the-box, which might be made to keep our local schools open. The subcommittee never even discussed this subject.
In August, the subcommittee removed 15 of the 18 Essential Questions including all questions on finances and gave them to the administration. It is the administration that generates the financial information in the first place. The result was that the subcommittee received no financial information so could do no work to reduce costs. And the community now faces the bizarre situation of the administration providing financial information to itself, giving perspective on this information to itself, and deciding itself what to recommend to the board. This is not the good governance of a public body that the community expects from MAUSD. Good governance requires separation between administration and oversight.
Having made this radical alteration in our mission, the subcommittee and the Superintendent exhibited a lack of transparency by continuing to tell the community that the subcommittee was working on finances.
•  The MAUSD Video Shorts No. 2 in October said that the subcommittee is “considering … operating, maintenance and renovations costs of each building ….” The subcommittee received no information and did no work on operating, maintenance and renovations costs of each building.
•  In November the Addison Independent quoted the superintendent as saying in an email “I think the committee did a good job getting up to speed with the complexity of our fiscal challenges.” No getting up to speed was required; no fiscal information was shared with the Committee.
The subcommittee was left with three Essential Questions on the impact on kids and towns of closing or re-configuring schools. Because I am neither an educator nor a public administrator, I read and shared with the subcommittee half a dozen academic journal articles on these subjects. While there are pros and cons on each question, most of the research appears to favor small schools as more consistent with our communities’ core values.
But reducing the Essential Questions from 18 to 3 was not enough. Because this research tended to favor preserving town schools, much of it was “set aside” by other members of the subcommittee. The effect was to exclude relevant research on kids, small schools, and towns because, these members said, the research did not focus on “kids personally.” A sample of the findings of advantages for kids that was discarded by the subcommittee includes:
•  improved instructional methods including student-centered instruction, cross-age grouping, and cooperative learning
•  close student-teacher relations
•  greater chance for student participation in extracurricular activities
•  higher student achievement, especially for at-risk students
•  higher morale amongst students and teachers and less teacher stress
•  closer community connections
•  positive attitude toward school
•  fewer social behavior problems
•  better attendance
•  lower dropout rate
•  better self-concept
•  more success in college
Instead the subcommittee inserted, for example, these dubious propositions without any supporting evidence:
•  All five towns are economically stable enough to continue with or without a local school.
•  Even though frequently referred to as the ‘glue’ that holds a town together, school closure has limited exposure. The potential impact primarily affects families with elementary school age students, leaving the majority of town residents unaffected.
Video No. 2 also said the subcommittee was considering how the communities’ “core values” fit in facilities re-configuration. The subcommittee did no work on core values. Rather, the subcommittee substituted the core values of the committee members in place of the core values of the community.
The final report by the committee addresses the subject of finances by using for the first time in our deliberations an invented term, “perception of cost,” in place of actual costs. This concept does not appear in the Essential Questions, never was discussed in the committee, and does appear in the minutes of the committee or the board. I pointed out, with no effect, that the community may believe that closing schools based on “perception of cost” rather than actual costs is an insufficient basis of decision. Rather, the community may expect that a body independent of the administration should evaluate “actual costs.” Nonetheless the subcommittee issued its final report evaluating facilities feasibility without a single number or dollar sign.
The administration invokes NESDEC as experts who supported its work. In fact NESDEC is a consulting company of retired teachers and administrators. The NESDEC representative to MAUSD is a former social studies teacher, department chairperson, and curriculum coordinator. All these are worthwhile roles, but the expertise we need is demographics and economics, not social studies.
The option that never was under consideration and which seems most nearly to reflect the communities’ core values would be retaining all five elementary schools and consolidating the middle and high schools of MAUSD and ANWSD in two locations, with one middle school in Vergennes or Bristol, and one high school in the other. (This outcome is incorporated in Phase 2 of the Superintendent’s recommendation after the Lincoln and Starksboro elementary schools are “re-purposed”.)
I prepared a minority report. Some on the committee thought that a minority report should not be included at all. Others were willing to include it so long as it was re-labeled “Another View” and buried in the Appendix. It can be found at tinyurl.com/MAUSD-report.
Among the many issues at play here, I am concerned about the example in critical thinking and participatory democracy this process sets for our older children. It is dismaying that the administration does not recognize that its actions on these subjects speak louder than its words. And if the “re-purposing” of the Innovation Sites is not intended to avoid a town vote on closing schools, the superintendent no doubt will be willing to put to a vote “re-purposing” as if it were “closing” and accept the outcome? If not, the intention will be clear.
Jeff Meller
Lincoln

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